TSG IntelBrief: The UAE’s Expanding Role in the Region
April 13, 2017

The UAE’s Expanding Role in the Region

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is leveraging its substantial financial resources to emerge as an increasingly significant actor on several major regional fronts, despite its small population and size.

• The UAE’s main objective is to blunt Iran’s regional influence, an objective shared by the new Trump administration.

• The UAE also seeks to undermine regional Sunni Islamist groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is an increasingly active U.S. counterterrorism partner.

• The UAE’s capacity to project power has been enabled by years of U.S. military training and billions of dollars in sales of sophisticated U.S. weaponry.

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Despite its small population and size, the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—a federation of seven principalities—is emerging as a key player in virtually every significant regional flashpoint. Since entering into a formal defense cooperation pact with the U.S. after the first Gulf War in 1991, the UAE has evolved from a recipient of U.S. advice and training to a provider of such aid to other countries, including counterterrorism units in Somalia. The UAE’s assumption of such a significant role in the region has been enabled by cohesive and determined leadership, as well as ample financial resources. The UAE exports about 2.3 million barrels per day of oil—almost as much as Iran, which has 80 times as many citizens as the UAE. With its large cash reserves, the UAE has bought sophisticated U.S. arms, including upgraded F-16s, precision-guided munitions, and even the most advanced missile defense system the U.S. sells abroad—the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD). 

The UAE is using its resources throughout the region, both to counter Iran’s regional activities as well as to blunt Sunni Islamist movements that are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE views the Brotherhood as a supporter of Sunni jihadist terror and insurgent groups, and has sought to crush the organization at its source by donating financial assistance to the regime of Egyptian President Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi. President al-Sisi led the military coup that ousted Mohammad Morsi—Egypt’s elected president and senior Muslim Brotherhood figure. In Libya, UAE F-16 pilots are flying strikes in support of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is fighting pro-Brotherhood Islamist militias as well as the U.N.-backed transitional regime in Tripoli. The UAE’s intervention in both Egypt and Libya has put it squarely at odds with Qatar, which is the UAE’s ally in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but backs the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist modernizing movement. The UAE has declared the Brotherhood and its affiliates terrorist organizations and is encouraging the Trump administration to do the same, although the administration appears to be leaning against that step.

Though the UAE and U.S. do not agree on Libya policy or the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly, the UAE and the Trump administration are closely aligned in seeking to counter Iran’s regional activities. The UAE and the Trump administration have both criticized the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, but now consider it an established feature. In Yemen, the UAE is a key partner in the Saudi-led coalition attempting to militarily drive back the Iran-backed Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in the country. The U.S. has provided logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition, including efforts to interdict Iranian weapons shipments to the Houthis. The UAE is reportedly planning an operation—potentially with direct U.S. backing—to seize the Yemeni port of Hodeida with the intent of forcing the Houthis and their Iranian backers to the bargaining table. To facilitate its campaign in Yemen, the UAE has established bases in East Africa (first in Djibouti but later moved to Eritrea). The UAE has also joined Saudi Arabia in persuading Sudan to realign with the GCC and away from Iran’s orbit. The success of that effort was evidenced by Sudan joining the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. The UAE is a leader within the GCC in acquiring the U.S.-made THAAD as part of the U.S. strategy to establish a regional missile defense system against Iran’s expanding ballistic missile arsenal. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, however, the UAE has not supplied arms to rebel factions in Syria fighting President Bashar al-Assad. UAE leaders have asserted that ousting Assad requires direct U.S. intervention, and that GCC support for rebel factions will be fruitless without such U.S. participation.  

The UAE has become a vital U.S. partner against various major terrorist organizations in the region. In Yemen—separate from the campaign against the Houthis—UAE special forces work directly with U.S. Special Operations Forces against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). UAE forces participated in the U.S.-led raid against AQAP in late January, which marked the first major U.S. operation in Yemen under the Trump administration. In addition, UAE special forces have set up a training facility in Somalia to help beleaguered government forces counter the powerful al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab. UAE pilots have also flown air strikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria as part of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, although UAE strikes in Syria diminished sharply after the 2015 Russian intervention there. None of the GCC states have provided assistance to the Iraqi government against Islamic State, as the GCC considers the Iraqi leadership beholden to Iran and repressive of Iraqi Sunnis. The UAE’s demonstrated ability to punch above its weight—as well as its significant overlap in policy priorities with the Trump administration—are unique in the region. As the Trump administration looks to expand the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, the UAE is likely to remain a critical U.S. partner for the foreseeable future.

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